TV One star chef Michael van de Elzen remembers clearly the favourite family recipe from his childhood. “It’s a Dutch dish called Oliebollen – a sort of deep-fried cinnamon and raisin doughnut made from a light yeasty dough, sprinkled with icing sugar,” he says.
“Mum only made them on New Year’s Eve. As a teenager, I can recall that, no matter where I was going with my mates, I didn’t leave the house until the first batch of Oliebollen came out. As soon as it got to 8pm and the first lot was made, I’d have some – then, bang, I’d be out the door, quick as a flash!"
“But that’s the thing about food – apart from taking all the wheels off their car, it’s the only way you will get all the kids to stay at home!”
Most of us can remember that special recipe Mum or Grandma used to make – the comfort food that feels like home. But while the dish is steeped in nostalgia, sometimes it carries a little less in flavour – which is why Mike is embarking on a new project.
On Family Recipes, the likeable chef goes to people’s houses to create his own version of their favourite family recipe.
“I believe passionately that every New Zealander can eat healthily and simply – this show is an extension of that,” explains Mike, 40, who is dad to two girls, Hazel, 2 and 9 month-old Ivy.
“I learn where their recipe comes from, what it means to them, who in their family made it – then put my version of their dish up against the original. It doesn’t always go well, in fact, sometimes it’s a disaster. But that’s the interesting part of cooking – you’re always learning. What we end up with is their idea of the dish and my take on it. I’m very open to criticism, always have been.”
And it’s true that while many chefs are renowned for being resistant to criticism, Mike’s career has been based on the general public judging his cooking – a concept which made his first TV show, The Food Truck, so popular. But Mike is remarkably unpretentious about his food – a trait he most probably developed growing up on a chicken farm in Massey.
“Our family always ate well, but there was no pressing our own olive oil or anything fancy.I grew up with dinners of basic meat and three vege,” he says. “Because we had the farm, we’d have chicken about three times a week, and the veges in those days were pretty simple – steamed potato or broccoli.”
But Mike’s inventiveness with food came from somewhere.
“Mum used to make this wonderful raisin bread. We’d always know it was coming, because we’d be in bed and hear the machine start turning,” he recalls. “She’d make an enormous 10kg dough, then wrap it in a towel and tuck it into the bed with me so it could prove. I’d wake up in bed with this enormous mound next to me under the blankets!”
Mike has fond memories of several Dutch dishes from his mum.
“She’d often make croquetten, and I have her recipe for Appel Fla – apple flan, which is a basic shortbread mix with layered apples that have been rubbed with cinnamon.” However, he admits his own family food heritage isn’t as strong as it could be.
“The programme made me want to keep our own family recipes going. It opened my eyes to maintaning family traditions,” he says. “Our two year old, Hazel, is quite keen on cooking, I think. She loves to sit on the kitchen bench and
watch [my wife] Bee and I cook. If anyone is going to carry on those Dutch dishes, it’ll be me.”
And he’s determined his girls will grow up knowing how to create a range of dishes.
“I was quite shocked to discover the average New Zealand household only makes seven dishes – in America, it’s only four,” he says. “It’s really important to get your kids trying everything, so they eat the same as the parents. After all, if we don't teach them to cook, how will we keep the family traditions going?”